The Los Angeles Lakers are entering one of the most important seasons in franchise history. Kobe Bryant could be entering his final year, No. 2 overall NBA Draft pick D’Angelo Russell is coming to town and 2014 Top 10 pick Julius Randle is on pace to be healthy after missing all but one game a season ago.
Through it all, the most important player on the roster may be the man being most commonly overlooked: Jordan Clarkson.
Clarkson was a draft-night acquisition by the Lakers in 2014. He was selected at No. 35 overall by the Washington Wizards, but Mitch Kupchak acted fast and found one of the Lakers’ few bright spots from 2014-15.
Clarkson made 59 appearances, starting 38 and averaging 11.9 points, 3.5 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 0.9 steals in 25.0 minutes of action per game.
In a tale of two halves, Clarkson struggled to find the floor before the 2015 All-Star Break. As his playing time increased, however, Clarkson evolved into a local fan favorite, averaging 16.7 points, 5.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.0 steal after All-Star Weekend.
The question is, can he evolve into the player Los Angeles needs to be along a crowded perimeter?
Offensive Upside: Scorer
If there’s one thing that Jordan Clarkson has going for him, it’s his athleticism. He’s a force in transition, a terror coming splitting screens and a genuine threat on the offensive glass.
Coupled with his strong dribble-penetration skills, it stands to reason that Clarkson could one day average in excess of 20 points per game.
Some have compared him to Russell Westbrook, but athletically, a better fit may be Damian Lillard. He’s nowhere near the shooter that Lillard is, but he can split the pick-and-roll and erupt at the rim for a ferocious finish.
Regardless of whom you choose to compare him to, what’s clear is that Clarkson can attack the rack.
An 82.9 percent free throw shooter as a rookie, Clarkson has the foundation to be a great shooter, as well. He only converted 31.4 percent of his 3-point field goal attempts, but he shot a reasonably intriguing 38.8 percent on 2-point jump shots, per Basketball-Reference.com.
There’s work to be done, but the foundation is there for Clarkson to be as dynamic a scorer as he is explosive an athlete.
Offensive Upside: Facilitator
The Los Angeles Lakers made the surprising decision to select point guard D’Angelo Russell over center Jahlil Okafor in the 2015 NBA Draft. Los Angeles abandoned what helped it win 16 championships—playing through a dominant interior scorer—in favor of today’s dependency on point guards.
The question is, will Clarkson and Russell be utilized as duel facilitators? Or will one take precedence over the other?
Clarkson finished the 2014-15 NBA regular season with an average of 3.5 assists in 25.0 minutes per game. That number paints a troubling picture for a player who’s expected to see a high number of touches.
In 28 games after the All-Star Break, however, Clarkson averaged 5.4 assists in 32.6 minutes of action.
Over the course of his final 10 games, Clarkson tallied at least seven assists in five separate outings. That includes two with 10-plus and four with at least nine dimes.
It’s a small sample size, but Clarkson was clearly coming into his own as a facilitator towards the end of 2014-15.
Russell has more on-paper ability as a facilitator, but it’s not as though he’s a proven NBA commodity. He’ll be trusted with a significant role as the No. 2 overall draft pick, but Clarkson’s court vision should not be overlooked.
Giving Clarkson the chance to facilitate will be vital to his development as a playmaker.
Very little should have Los Angeles Lakers fans more intrigued than Jordan Clarkson’s athleticism. He displays fluid lateral quickness, impressive foot speed and pogo-stick explosiveness at the rim.
The Russell Westbrook comparisons are a bit of a reach, but Clarkson is a high-grade athlete.
Given his ability to match up with just about any guard athletically, his upside is immense. He’s shown signs of that offensively, but the key area in need of improvement is his defense.
According to NBA.com, Clarkson allowed his defensive assignments to shoot 4.5 percent better than their average field goal percentage when he was the primary defender.
A rookie’s defensive play is far from indicative of how poorly they’ll play from hereon out. What’s clear, however, is that Clarkson needs to improve his footwork and focus on that end of the floor.
Kobe Bryant and D’Angelo Russell could both contribute defensively, but neither should be viewed as lockdown defenders at this stage of their respective careers.
As for Clarkson, his athletic ability and positional versatility should make him a defensive weapon. Whether it’s playing the passing lanes or on-ball defense, he shouldn’t let opponents beat him with such regularity.
Overall, if he’s able to expand his range, find a facilitating balance with Russell and improve his defensive consistency, Clarkson could be the breakout star whom Los Angeles needs to silence its critics.
From start to finish, getting the most out of Clarkson should be one of Byron Scott‘s primary priorities in 2015-16.
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